Hamlet is the great Shakespearean tragedy most frequently mentioned in books. Check the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which charts the frequency of any word or short sentence found in print since the year 1800. And you will find Hamlet mentioned more often than the other great Shakespearean tragedies.
I thought Macbeth comes close. But, no, Hamlet is more frequently mentioned by far. Macbeth is a distant runner-up followed by Othello. King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, the other two great Shakespearean tragedies, are mentioned less frequently than Romeo and Juliet.
Predictably, Shakespeare is on Twitter today, it being April 23, believed to be his birthday and also the day he died.
Shakespeare is losing ground, though. The tragedies are cited and quoted less often than before. The late 1940s and early ’50s were the golden age of Shakespeare when references to the tragedies peaked in books. That was the era of scholars like AL Rowse and Dover Wilson and actors like Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud.
One reason the Shakespearean tragedies are mentioned less often in books now may be the growing diversity of the publishing industry. There are more books on other subjects that have little or no reason to cite Shakespeare. The Google Books Ngram Viewer shows fewer references to Shakespeare himself today than in the early 1900s and the 1950s. Those were the years when he was cited most often. AC Bradley’s seminal Shakespearean Tragedy was published in 1904.
Words of Shakespeare
Shakespeare may be losing ground, but it is like the depletion of the rainforests. Just as we cannot imagine a world without rainforests, English won’t be English without Shakespeare. His words have become part of our everyday language. Quotations from his plays and poems pop up everywhere, from books to newspaper articles. These lines from Hamlet, for example, have become ubiquitous:
“To be, or not to be: that is the question”.(Act III, Scene I).
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be…”(Act I, Scene III).
“…to thine own self be true”. (Act I, Scene III).
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”. (Act II, Scene II).
“That it should come to this!”. (Act I, Scene II).
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. (Act II, Scene II).
“What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! “.(Act II, Scene II).
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”. – (Act III, Scene II).
“In my mind’s eye”. (Act I, Scene II).
“Brevity is the soul of wit”. – (Act II, Scene II).
“I will speak daggers to her, but use none”. – (Act III, Scene II).
“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions”. (Act IV, Scene V)
The 1989 second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary had 33,300 quotations from Shakespeare. The viral nature of the World Wide Web means these quotations have been repeated many times over online. A Google search for Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy turned up 23,300,000 results in 40 seconds.
Many of the words we use were first found in Shakespeare. Here are some of the words earliest encountered in Shakespeare by the lexicographers of the Oxford English Dictionary. You will find these and more Bard words on enotes. Also check the website Shakespeare’s Words by David and Ben Crystal.
|Words first found in Shakespeare?|
|accommodation||addiction (Shakespeare meant “tendency”)||admirable|
|aerial (Shakespeare meant “of the air”)||airless||amazement|
|bubble||bump (as a noun)||candle holder|
|cater (as in “to bring food”)||cat-like||characterless|
|cheap (in pejorative sense of “vulgar”)||chimney-top||churchlike|
|cold-hearted||colourful||compact (as noun “agreement”)|
|to comply||to compromise (Shakespeare meant “to agree”)||consanguineous
(related by bloood)
|dawn (as a noun)||day’s work||death’s head|
|defeat (as a noun)||depositary (as “trustee”)||dewdrop|
|dexterously (Shakespeare spelt it “dexteriously”)||disgraceful||to dishearten|
|to dislocate||distasteful (meant “to show disgust”||distrustful|
|East Indies||to educate||to elbow|
|embrace (as a noun)||employer||employment|
|equivocal||eventful||excitement (Shakespeare meant “incitement”)|
|eyeball||eyedrop (Shakespeare meant a “tear”)||eyewink|
|face (Shakespeare meant “dial of a clock”)||fair-faced||fairyland|
|fashionable||fashionmonger||fathomless (Shakespeare meant “too huge to be encircled by one’s arms”)|
|fat-witted||featureless (Shakespeare meant “ugly”)||fiendlike|
|fitful||fixture (Shakespeare meant “fixing” or setting firmly in place”)||fleer (as a noun, “sneer”)|
|flowery (“full of florid expressions”)||fly-bitten||footfall|
|foul-mouthed||Franciscan||freezing (as an adjective)|
|full-hearted||futurity||gallantry (Shakespeare meant “gallant people’|
|garden house||generous (Shakespeare meant “gentle”, “noble”||gentlefolk|
|glow (as a noun)||go-between||grass plot|
|green-eyed||grey-eyed||grief-shot (as “sorrow-stricken”)|
|grime (as a noun)||to grovel||gust (as a “wind blast”)|
|to hinge||hint (as a noun)||hobnail (as a noun)|
|homely (in the sense of “ugly”)||honey-tongued||hostile|
|hot-blooded||howl (as a noun)||hunchbacked|
|impartial||import (the noun “importance” or “significance”)||inaudible|
|indistinguishable||inducement||informal (meant “unformed” or “irresolute”)|
|to inlay||investment (Shakespeare meant “a piece of||invitation|
|invulnerable||jaded (Shakespeare seems to have meant “contemptible:)||lacklustre|
|leaky||leapfrog||lonely (Shakespeare meant “lone”)|
|madcap (as an adjective)||madwoman||majestic|
|malignancy (Shakespeare meant “malign tendency”)||manager||marketable|
|marriage bed||mewling (“whining”, “whimpering”)||mimic (the noun)|
|misgiving (Shakespeare meant “uneasiness”)||money’s worth||monumental|
|obscene (Shakespeare meant “revolting”)||on purpose||outbreak|
|overblown||overview (as a noun: Shakespeare meant “supervision”)||pageantry|
|pale-faced||paternal||pedant (Shakespeare was referring to a “schoolmaster”)|
|pedantical||pendulous (Shakespeare meant “hanging over”)||perusal|
|Promethean||protester (Shakespeare meant “one who affirms”)||puppy dog|
|reprieve (the noun)||retirement||roadway|
|ruttish||satisfying (as an adjective)||savage (as “uncivilized”)|
|scuffle||seamy||self-abuse (Shakespeare meant “self-deception”)|
|shipwrecked||shooting star||shudder (the noun)|
|successful||suffocating (the adjective)||tardiness|
|uncomfortable (in the sense “disquieting”)||unearthly||uneducated|
|unpremediated||unpublished (Shakespeare meant “undisclosed”)||unquestionable|
|varied (as an adjective)||vulnerable||watchdog|
|well-read||yelping (as an adjective)|